It has been said that the Syrian regime only learns of a defection when an official doesn’t turn up to work. So when the country’s vice president disappeared from the public eye for a week, it seemed as though the FSA had claimed a major scalp.
“Farouq Al-Sharaa did defect [and] we were trying to get him through to Jordan,” said rebel spokesman Louai Miqdad on 18 August.
Apart from a press release claiming that, “Vice President Farouq Al-Sharaa has never at any moment thought of leaving the homeland,” the regime was silent. Not a single quote from the man himself, no written statement, no on-camera appearance. For 7 days, Syria-watchers were on the edge of their seats, waiting for Al-Sharaa to turn up in Amman and declare his support for the revolution.
But it never happened. Instead, on 26 August, Tim Marshall, Foreign Affairs Editor for Britain’s Sky News, said that he had just met Al-Sharaa – in Damascus. But his Houdini-act raised more questions than it answered. Marshall described him as “looking tired”. Was the 73 year-old just war-weary? Or was something else at play?
While attention was on the battle for Aleppo throughout August, Daraa was being pounded by the regime’s forces. That is important because the city that was the birthplace of the Syrian revolution also happens to be Al-Sharaa’s hometown, and a transit point to Jordan.
On 23 August, @the_47th, a reliable opposition source, claimed that there were unconfirmed reports of regime troops scouring Daraa for the city for the missing vice president. “Hand us Al-Sharaa now, or we’ll level this city over your heads,” they apparently told locals by loudspeaker.
Was he found, and then presented to the waiting media in Damascus three days later? Al-Sharaa certainly fits the profile of a potential defector.
Assad’s biographer, David Lesch, describes the vice president as a respected elder statesman, and “one of the few in the upper echelons of the leadership who acted in the interests of the country and was not corrupt”.
So it’s no surprise that he was picked to chair a relatively well-attended national dialogue conference in July 2011 that brought together the government and opposition. He opened by talking of a transition to democracy, and admitted that the meeting would not have happened without the sacrifices of those who had died.
In retrospect, it was clear that the conference was meaningless, and that while the politicians talked in Damascus, the regime was busy killing unarmed civilians. At the time, though, Al-Sharaa’s words carried a degree of sincerity to some: he was touted as a possible transitional president in Arab League meetings.
But it is precisely that support, from enemies of the regime, that may have been Al-Sharaa’s poisoned chalice. In one of the first opposition conferences, early in the revolution, participants released a statement hailing Minister of Defence Ali Habib as someone who would have a key role post-Assad. He was dismissed from his post three months later,
and found dead the next day. (Thanks Liz Sly.)
Was Al-Sharaa hunted down after defecting? Or was the regime just playing the propaganda game? The government has always been very slow at responding to claims made by an opposition that it doesn’t even recognise. It sees reacting as a sign of weakness, and would rather deal with the story on its own terms.
Whether or not he attempted to switch sides, the most significant effect of the regime’s extended delay in wheeling out Al-Sharaa has been to undermine the credibility of at least some of the opposition’s claims.
And more importantly, it sets the rules of the defection game: the next time there are claims that a government ally has deserted, the regime no longer has to prove that a minister is still loyal. The Al-Sharaa debacle means the burden of proof has shifted to the opposition.